Why Do I Believe? Part 15 — Occam’s Razor and Pascal’s Wager

dice-razorThere are two historical arguments that I find intriguing for the way in which they have been used for and against Christian apologetics:  the first is Occam’s (or Ockham’s) Razor, and the second is Pascal’s Wager.  I address these, not because I find either particularly compelling (in fact I don’t), but rather because I’ve seen them come up in apologetics debates with sufficient frequency that I don’t think it prudent to ignore them.

Occam’s Razor, also known as the “Law of Economy,” is a principle advocated by the 14th-century philosopher (and Franciscan monk) William of Ockham:  “plurality should not be posited without necessity.”  Essentially, the idea is that given two competing hypotheses, the one that requires the fewest complicating elements is to be preferred.  It’s not a bad guiding principle, and in fact it makes a lot of sense that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is often preferable to a more-complex one.  I find it interesting and somewhat amusing, however, that Occam’s Razor seems to be invoked with about equal conviction by both my theist and atheist friends.  The theist argues, for example, that a conscious and deliberate creative act by a creator is a far simpler explanation for the universe than the appearance of a singularity out of nothing.  The atheist, on the other hand, argues that the mere introduction of a creator into the mix is a complicating element, rendering the atheist explanation the simpler.  The upshot, it seems to me, is that Occam becomes somewhat of a wild card, played by each to trump the other’s hand, and holding a value in the mind of each that is not shared by the other.  As such, it’s not particularly helpful in the theism-atheism debate.

Interestingly, though, neither camp seems to recognize in its invocation of Occam that the Razor is merely a guiding principle, not a logical argument.  Absent additional evidence, preferring a simple explanation over a complex one certainly does seem to be a reasonable bias, but in point of fact some things actually are complex.  Absent the biological evidence we now have, it seems to me hard to dispute that the ancient notion that the man “sows his seed” in a woman and it grows into a baby, is vastly simpler than the meiosis-fertilization-recombination process that we now know happens in human reproduction … but until we had the necessary tools to study this biological process, the ancients would certainly have found their own explanation better suited to an “Occamian” evaluation.  Knowing what we know now, the evidence provides the “necessity” side of Occam’s principle, so of course we accept the complex explanation.  But before we had microscopes, the facts weren’t different; only our ability to evaluate them was.  Humans who correctly applied Occam in evaluating theories of where babies come from, would’ve gotten it wrong.

Consequently, to appeal to Occam as anything other than a guiding principle is fallacious.  One cannot prove–or disprove–any hypothesis on Occamian grounds.  It’s silly for either theists or atheists to hold otherwise.  Incidentally, that’s exactly the conclusion that the “Skeptic’s Dictionary” article linked above (http://skepdic.com/occam.html) suggests, and I heartily commend the whole article to my readers.  As author Robert Todd Carroll concludes:

“Today, we think of the principle of parsimony as a heuristic device. We don’t assume that the simpler theory is correct and the more complex one false. We know from experience that more often than not the theory that requires more complicated machinations is wrong. Until proved otherwise, the more complex theory competing with a simpler explanation should be put on the back burner, but not thrown onto the trash heap of history until proven false.”

Therefore, as a tool for evaluating the claims of theism or atheism, Occam’s Razor is ultimately unhelpful.

On to Pascal.  Blaise Pascal was a 17th-century French mathematician and scientist who, among many other works, applied probability to the question of belief in God.  Pascal’s argument has been distilled by apologists and philosophers into a construction which goes something like this (my summary):

  1. Either the Christian God exists, or he doesn’t.
  2. We are compelled to choose to believe in the Christian God or not. Either way, it’s a gamble and we don’t know the outcome, but we cannot avoid the choice.
  3. If the Christian God exists, he will reward those who believe in him with infinite blessing (those who don’t believe either get nothing — i.e. lose the blessing — or are infinitely cursed).
  4. If the Christian God doesn’t exist, believing in him is harmless, and not believing in him is equally harmless.
  5. Therefore, the principle of maximizing utility compels us to choose to believe in the Christian God; at best we’ll get an awesome reward, and at worst we’re no worse off than if we didn’t believe.

This is obviously a vast oversimplification, but this simplistic level is about the depth at which I find most Evangelical apologists applying the principle.  To those who are interested in reading more deeply, I recommend this nice summary by Tim Holt: Pascal’s Wager on the Philosophy of Religion website (http://www.philosophyofreligion.info/theistic-proofs/pascals-wager/), and a much more analytic, philosophical article by Alan Hajek: Pascal’s Wager on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pascal-wager/).  Both provide a solid and, I think, reasonably dispassionate analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Pascal’s logic.  Holt appears to come from a position of theism and Hajek from atheism, but both appear to be careful and non-polemic enough that I’m not sure about either one.

My own objection to Pascal’s Wager (supported by both authors linked above) starts with the false dichotomy that the only theistic choice we have on offer is to believe in the Christian God or not.  I pointed this out in one of the earliest articles in my series, in which I said “There is a common error among many Evangelical Christians (and some others) I have known, that the opposite of Christianity is atheism, and conversely the opposite of atheism is Christianity, as though faith is a merely a single, bivalued choice.”  Footnote 5 in the Stanford article says the same thing with much more academic force, and best when quoting Mackie:  “the church within which alone salvation is to be found is not necessarily the Church of Rome, but perhaps that of the Anabaptists or the Mormons or the Muslim Sunnis or the worshippers [sic] of Kali or of Odin.”

Of course, a corollary point would be that an argument from utility isn’t actually a proof of God at all … rather, it’s a way to weigh the probabilities and choose a course of action that’s most likely to “win” selfish gain.  It seems to me somewhat doubtful that “belief” (whatever that means) driven solely by selfish ends–what my Mom calls “fire insurance”–is likely to be sufficient to merit whatever rewards God might have on offer, if indeed God’s intention is to reward “belief.”

My second objection is that, as I’ve already said, the possibility (or not) of an afterlife doesn’t really compel me.  As I wrote in Part 13, I find enough desirable in the Christian faith that I don’t think I’d change much about my life if I decided that it wasn’t true, or that there’s no heaven or hell.  Of course, I’ve already taken issue with the whole idea that eternal destiny as usually preached by Christians, is at all Biblical. From this perspective, I think premise 3 is erroneous at best (atheists would also reasonably take issue with premise 4, as they often do NOT consider belief to be harmless).  So I find Pascal’s argument both flawed and uncompelling.  Once again, this theist sides with the opponents on a major apologetic gambit.


18 thoughts on “Why Do I Believe? Part 15 — Occam’s Razor and Pascal’s Wager”

  1. Jeff

    First you have to determine which of the hundreds of Gods is the correct God to follow. Then we can talk about Pascal’s Wager. Since that’s not ever going to happen. Then there is no point in using it in any argument for or against.

    When you take Hell or punishment out of the equation of any religion. You then reduce it down to just being moral/ethical teachings and it wouldn’t matter which one you follow.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Take another look (maybe a first look?) at what I wrote in the article, Jeff, and I think you’ll see I agree with your objection. What I said was “My own objection to Pascal’s Wager (supported by both authors linked above) starts with the false dichotomy that the only theistic choice we have on offer is to believe in the Christian God or not.”

      I do think there’s plenty of value left in faith even when you “take hell or punishment out of the equation.” I’ve spent some time looking at just that point. If you’re interested, I addressed that in a previous post (also linked in the text of this article): http://www.nailtothedoor.com/why-do-i-believe-part-12-not-for-heavens-sake/

  2. Steven Kline

    i have found that there is definitely harm in belief in god. i have a wounded soul from belief in the christian god as a child. in fact, even as a child i used to lay in bed, thinking about what eternity in hell would be like. once, i asked my mother how we knew that we (my family and church) were right, and everyone else was wrong. apparently, she didn’t have a good enough answer for me. i know that it’s not fair to generalize about god and religion based on my own limited experience in a particular church, but i do believe there are many more like me in all sects and denominations who have been hurt by religion.

  3. Nathaniel

    When it comes to apologetics, I do not use the apologetics common to my faith (I do have my own form devised over the years to defend my faith from the perversions from fundamentalist within Islam and from the propaganda being used by other fundamentalist and their associated extremist). I prefer a combined approach that uses both universalist philosophy and a form of monotheist apologetics (based on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim apologetics). My key approach if first defending the existence of God. Then defending the existence of only one God. So while I find the universalist adjustment to Pascals intriguing (Christian God -> The God, and infinite reward -> infinite possibility of reward) it still only really good for thought experiments. With Occum’s razor, there is the problem of criteria. No set of criteria that can be applied only to one argument, i.e., any specific system not selectively applied, that can be applied to “prove” one position, can be applied to “prove” the other. It’s only by arbritarily applying burden of proof does one argument become more reasonable than the other. I actually hate saying that as a believer, but it is simply being rational. So in an area where burden of proof is subjective, Occum’s razor is also only useful for thought, atleast in regards to the existence of God.

    Thank you, Dan Martin, for all that you have written defending Muslims and reaching a hand out in peace to Muslims. I gladly accept that hand. May God give you what is better. May The Peace be upon you, and the blessings and protection of God.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Thank you, Nathaniel, and peace and blessings upon you as well.

      I’d be interested to hear you tease out a little more what you mean by “the universalist adjustment to Pascal’s.” Are you suggesting that I am accepting Pascal but in a universalist manner? Because my own position is that the Wager requires so many presuppositions to be essentially useless from a logical standpoint.

      1. Nathaniel

        I see you as making a similar argument against using Pascal’s Wager in literal contexts. The adjustments are based on arguments against Pascal’s Wager that are based on the original direct Christian context. For example, there is also possibility of punishment and lack of reward, if you chose the wrong god. By changing to any definition for a singular creator called God, most inter-religious arguments are removed. More of cleaning house than fixing it up though. Generic arguments against it still exist, and are logically sound. When valid arguments are to be had on both sides, the original argument can not be used to back either opinion. Peace.

        1. Dan Martin Post Author

          I think you have to break it down more than that. Even postulating a generic deity, Pascal’s wager still depends on that deity also intending to bless the believer and/or damn the unbeliever. Neither of these outcomes necessarily follows from the mere existence of a deity, but rather is its own distinct sub-premise. For example, an all-loving universalist deity who will save everyone renders the wager meaningless. So does a creator who doesn’t offer afterlife at all, but rather has created us mortal with no eternal future. In other words, Pascal’s Wager is a textbook case of a false dichotomy as I said above.

          To this, you might rejoin that most religions propose some scheme of reward and punishment. That may be true, though it’s probably more accurate to say that some adherents of most religions do. I know, for example, of quite a few Christians who are universalists — that is, they believe in the truth of Christianity, but they also believe that God’s love is so strong and so compelling that eventually, all of humanity will accept him (this necessitates that we’ll continue to be offered the choice after death, which they also believe). I’m not offering an argument for or against this perspective … merely pointing out that the universe of alternatives is much broader than Pascal grants.

  4. Nathaniel

    Different groups have different over arching definitions, but the majority do not believe that God forgives everyone, just that there are many paths to God. The vast majority of monotheist believe in a day of judgement, and either a positive, neutral, or negative outcome. Therefore, it is reasonable to state that the concept of The God, includes the concept of personal judgement. Removing the Christian context does not remove the chance of punishment for the atheist.

    As for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the simplest definition of the path is to serve God and God alone. Christ did use the Jewish testimony of faith in the second half of Mark 12:29, “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.'” Ya ‘Israel, Adonai Elohim, Adonai ‘Ehad. (Oh Israel! The Lord is Our God. The Lord is The One.) It is similar to the Islamic, There is no god except The God, also meant to be an affirmation of the first commandment, the same as the Jewish testimony. All secondary restrictions, are just that, secondary. If you do not believe in God, or you do and serve other gods, everything else doesn’t really matter. I would recommend reading the bible with the understanding that there is no equivalent to worship in the manuscripts. The common meaning usually is either to prostrate or to serve. I generally recommend my Christian friends to pay extra attention to Psalms, Mark, and Luke. Some I also add Proverbs.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I think you’re confusing two concepts … that which extant religions believe, and that which is reasonable for a logical argument. Nothing about the proposition that a deity does or does not exist, requires that such deity exist solely as one or more religions have conceived it. Remember that Pascal’s Wager claims to be a logical argument … therefore, we must approach it (and have the right to critique it) by logical means. The concept that only those possible scenarios on offer from one religion, are valid, is what I already assailed. Just to expand it to the scenarios on offer by the major monotheistic religions, as you have proposed, is no better from a logical standpoint. Furthermore, since Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all indisputably hail from the same root, they really don’t get to claim more strength from three religions coming to the same conclusion either … that same conclusion is merely the common thread that traces down through a straight-line path. So I reiterate … from a dispassionate, logical perspective, one cannot presume that the concepts of the existence of a deity is necessarily, inexorably linked to the hope/fear of reward/punishment. They are separate concepts.

      As to your last comment re: worship, I’m not actually sure what you mean or where you’re going with it, but I suspect you’re tilting into an Islam-vs-Christianity apologetic, which is another conversation entirely.

      1. Steven Kline

        OK, Dan, but all logical arguments start with some assumptions. In this case, it is not unreasonable to start with the assumption that if God exists, God would be just, and deal out punishment for evil and reward for good. This is backed up by evidence, in that all religions have this assumption, and we do not see religions where say, evil is rewarded. The whole premise of Pascal’s wager is assumption: assume that God exists. Is it silly then to assume that God is just? I think not. OK, Dan, so what is so wrong in having two assumptions, as opposed to one, especially where there is some real-life evidence to back up the second assumption? May I also steal a bit from the ontological argument for the existence of God? In this argument, God is assumed to be the most perfect being imaginable. If we take this to be the definition of God, the it follows logically that this being would also be the most just being imaginable, no? Just wondering.

        1. Dan Martin Post Author

          It’s perfectly fair to start with assumptions, Steve, as long as those assumptions are fully disclosed. What’s not fair is to presume they’re the only possible assumptions, and then triumphantly declare to a nonbeliever that one has proven one’s case.

          One could easily argue, for example, that God is unjust based solely on the frequency with which we see terrible things happen to people who do good (in fact, people have been saying this for centuries). So if one makes this argument, then one has, by rejecting a premise, rendered the argument moot. Which is my point … as an apologetic tool, Pascal’s Wager falls pretty far short of the mark.

      2. Steven Kline

        One more thing, Dan, if I may…..there is actual scientific evidence that if there is a God, he rewards those who believe in him. Scientific studies were done on hospital patients, and it was found that those with a strong religious faith would heal faster and get over their ailments much faster than non-believers. So, there you have it: proof that God rewards believers. So, would it be so terrible to postulate a rewarding God in Pascal’s wager?

        1. Dan Martin Post Author

          I’d be interested in links to those scientific studies, Steve. Not knowing the particulars, I couldn’t reasonably comment on their rigor. I imagine the average atheist would rejoin that perhaps those believers have a more optimistic outlook on life, and there is very solid evidence that a positive mental outlook correlates to faster healing. “Proof” is a pretty strong word.

          1. Steven Kline

            Hi, Dan. Looking on Google for the specific link did me no good because there are so many of them. What I saw was in the news in the 1980’s, so there is no way I could recall that specific study. Anyway, I was playing devil’s, no angel’s advocate with you just to see your response, so that it might clarify why you object to the use of Pascal’s wager in apologetics.
            To be honest, Pascal’s wager did at one time appeal to me, but I found that you simply can’t force yourself into believing something you don’t, no matter what the reward might be. And even if you could, would God even approve of such a selfish reason for belief? So, actually, I’m with you on this one.

  5. Nathaniel

    On my comments, please remember I’m not trying to argue for Pascal’s Wager as part of apologetics, simply how to clean in up so that it is more useful, philosophically. I would state here that the form of logic used is as important as using logic. In classic logic, logical assumptions are allowed while in Stoic logic, and in modern forms based on truth testing, they are not allowed. All predicates must have evidence or be the result of a different, valid argument. Doing so prevents absolute proof of God, but strong arguments can be made, that from my perspective, that the existence of God is the best explanation. For example, as best as we currently understand, there is no such thing as random. This shows an order to things. What causes this order is up for debate. The other equal possibities already posited would be that existence requires order so it exist or that its proof a superior alien intelligence at work. I prefer believing in God as the source, and I find the other explanations to be less reasonable. Doesn’t mean all three are not valid arguments.
    As for worship part, I was pointing out that the bible talks more about serving God than believing in God. The concept, that forgiveness requires more than simple belief, is prevalent amongs those who believe. What serving God entails is what differs amongst believers. Stating it as Christian God add more than a Just God. For Christian God, one must first prove a Just God. And if God is not Just, is He really God?

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      On the logic side of things, we do have to be careful though. When you say that certain forms of logic “allow” for presuppositions you’re obviously right. But a formally-correct logical statement is still disputable by disputing the premises.

      To your second point of service vs. belief, I have no argument. I’ve said as much many times on this blog, starting with my Word About Creeds eight years ago.

      To your final point “if God is not Just, is he really God?” I would answer “maybe.” I happen to believe God is just, so please do not misunderstand me here. But I think we’re on very shaky ground any time we utter a statement in the form “if God were not X, he would not be God.” Both the Christian scripture and the Muslim Qur’an agree that God simply is … self-existent in all that he is. We define theology by attempting to understand his revelation; we do not define him by our theology. You might find this post on Orthodoxy and Defining God to be of some use here.

      1. Nathaniel

        Sorry for the long pause. You are very right in stating that God is. God is also responsible for all that is in existence. So an argument can be made that God is not just in our terms. It is in our understanding of a final judgment and a day of recompense that determines that God is Wholly Just.

        On the other post, I am heterodox. Not the exact same use as in the post and at the same time, the post almost sounds like someone who leans towards heterodoxy. My problem has always been the question, “Why?” I actually expect a response and that angers too many people.
        “You should always do ____ when ____ happens.”
        Really, why?
        “I don’t know.”

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